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What Chemicals are in Cigarettes and Cigarette Smoke?

Poisons, Carcinogens and Toxic Heavy Metals in Cigarettes

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Updated April 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Chemicals are in Cigarettes and Cigarette Smoke? Image © Stockxpert

As smokers, we try not to think about the chemicals in cigarettes. Instead, we think about how cigarettes help us cope with the stress of daily life, how they calm us down when we're angry, help us relax at the end of a long day, comfort us when we're sad or lonely. Harmful chemicals in cigarettes? No, we do our best to avoid thinking about that.

The truth of the matter is that smoking does the opposite of just about everything we give it credit for. When the chemicals in cigarettes are inhaled, they put our bodies into a state of physical stress by sending literally thousands of poisons, toxic metals and carcinogens coursing through our bloodstream with every puff we take. And those chemicals affect everything from blood pressure and pulse rate to the health of our organs and immune system.

While researchers are still working to uncover all of the hazards cigarettes present to human life, we do know that air tainted with cigarette smoke is dangerous for anyone who breathes it, smoker or not.

Let's take a closer look at some of the harmful chemicals in cigarettes and how they affect our health.

Chemicals in Cigarettes: Carcinogens

A carcinogen is defined as any substance that can cause or aggravate cancer. Approximately 70 of the chemicals in cigarettes are known to cause cancer.

Benzene
Benzene can be found in pesticides and gasoline. It is present in high levels in cigarette smoke and accounts for half of all human exposure to this hazardous chemical.

Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a chemical used to preserve dead bodies, and is responsible for some of the nose, throat and eye irritation smokers experience when breathing in cigarette smoke.

Pesticides
Pesticides are used on our lawns and gardens, and inhaled into our lungs via cigarette smoke.

TSNAs
Tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs) are known to be some of the most potent carcinogens present in smokeless tobacco, snuff and tobacco smoke.

Vinyl Chloride
Vinyl Chloride is a man-made chemical that is used in making plastics and is in cigarette filters.

Chemicals in Cigarettes: Toxic Metals

Toxic / heavy metals are metals and metal compounds that have the potential to harm our health when absorbed or inhaled. In very small amounts, some of these metals support life, but when taken in large amounts, can become toxic.

Arsenic
Commonly used in rat poison, arsenic finds its way into cigarette smoke through some of the pesticides that are used in tobacco farming.

Cadmium
Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that is used in batteries. Smokers typically have twice as much cadmium in their bodies as nonsmokers.

Chemicals in Cigarettes: Radioactive Toxic Metals

There are a couple of toxic metals in cigarette smoke that carry an extra punch of danger for anyone breathing it in: they are radioactive.

Radioactive Cigarette Smoke
Lead-210 (Pb-210) and polonium-210 (Po-210) are poisonous, radioactive heavy metals that research has shown to be present in cigarette smoke.

Chemicals in Cigarettes: Poisons

Poison is defined as any substance that, when introduced to a living organism, causes severe physical distress or death. Science has discovered approximately 250 poisonous gases in cigarette smoke.

Ammonia
Ammonia compounds are commonly used in cleaning products and fertilizers. Ammonia is also used to boost the impact of nicotine in manufactured cigarettes.

Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is present in car exhaust and is lethal in very large amounts. Cigarette smoke can contain high levels of carbon monoxide.

Hydrogen Cyanide
Hydrogen cyanide was used to kill people in the gas chambers in Nazi Germany during World War II. It can be found in cigarette smoke.

Nicotine
Nicotine is a poison used in pesticides and is the addictive element in cigarettes.

A Word About Secondhand Smoke

Also known as environmental tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke is a term used to describe cigarette smoke that comes from two sources: Smoke that is exhaled by the smoker (mainstream smoke) and smoke produced by a smouldering cigarette (sidestream smoke).

Secondhand smoke is known to contain at least 250 toxic chemicals, including 50 cancer-causing chemicals. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. That means if you can smell cigarette smoke in the air, it could be harming your health.

If you smoke...

...use the tools below to help you get started on your smoke-free journey. There is no time like the present to stop the madness that cigarette smoking is. You'll be rewarded with benefits beyond what you can probably imagine and they'll start to occur faster than you think.

Within 20 minutes of your last cigarette, your body will begin to heal and improvements to your mental and physical health will continue to grow with time invested in smoking cessation.

It is never too late to quit smoking.

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